Review: Terry Gilliam's 'The Man Who Killed Don Quixote' runs circles around itself
Courtesy of Screen Media
With such strange and visually stunning films on his resume, ranging from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Twelve Monkeys” to “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” - director Terry Gilliam has an eye for staging the obscure. His appreciation of old fashion ideals and attention to romance and justice are what make his brain tick, but in his latest: the long gestating magnum opus “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” it feels as though his ambitions have gotten the better of him.
Considering “Don Quixote” sat in development hell for the last 25 years, dealing with numerous setbacks more epic than any novel could write (with stars like Johnny Depp and John Hurt both set to have starring roles at one point) Gilliam’s take on Miguel de Cervantes iconic character has finally landed on screens (or dumped as the studio has only given the passion project a one night residency in select theaters) and, well, it feels like something was lost in translation.
Opening with a nod to the production woes, the film states proudly “And now … after more than 25 years in the making, finally a film by Terry Gilliam.” The film starts off promising enough, teasing the audience with Dox Quixote’s most iconic scene, jousting windmills he has mistaken for giants, before revealing we’re on the set for a Russian vodka commercial (one of the many inconsistent anomalies that never quite add up).
Adam Driver stars as Toby, a once young and ambitious filmmaker who used to make prestige pictures and is now a commercial sellout. Amid juggling an affair and his own personal dilemmas, Toby is reminded of a black-and-white student film he produced nine years earlier, which, ironically enough, was called “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” - also inspired by Cervantes’s character. This sends him delving into a series of self reflection, and fiddling with the long-forgotten memories of the humble cobbler (Jonathan Pryce) he choose to cast as Don Quixote, and the 15-year-old village girl (Joana Ribeiro) with whom he had a flirtatious relationship.
It takes him some time to figure out that his current project and his past have a connection, and as these details come flooding back, he feels encouraged to track down those two actors outside the small Spanish town. He does, and now learns the old shoemaker has spent these last 15 years actually thinking he is Don Quixote and that Toby is his loyal servant Sancho Panza, blurring the line between fiction and reality.
After all, this is a Terry Gilliam film and nobody can make a convoluted mess quite like he can, “Dox Quixote” is essentially an unorthodox buddy-road trip comedy with exceptionally noteworthy performances from Pryce and Driver. Except Gilliam never defines who or what his characters are. For example: What does the man who thinks he’s Don Quixote want? And what can Toby do to help him? When a filmmaker’s had as many years as Gilliam did to gestate on one project, these are minor details that should've been answered.
Pryce makes a fine looking Don Quixote, but his monotone voice starts to sound nauseating the further the movie travels down the rabbit hole, and Driver, though hilarious while spouting expletives without context, lacks the type of comedic timing I feel Depp would’ve brought to the role. It’s all kind of drowsy and misbegotten and you wonder where the consistency went in Gilliam’s narrative. Despite his eccentric characters, the whole experience never has a payoff worthy of its lengthy two hour build up. In the end, Gilliam remains his own worst enemy; which is the need for artistic freedom, but never having the courage of saying enough is enough.